Ever since Shawn Fanning launched Napster from his Northeastern University dorm in 1999 and upended the music business, every industry has been on guard about a potential tech disruption.
There’s legitimate cause for such concern. Uber really has changed the taxi and limousine industry. Airbnb has challenged hotels and lodging. Other industries ranging from travel agencies to video rental stores have been flattened by digital disruption.
That’s why so many lawyers are concerned about blockchain. Blockchain—online distributed ledgers that use cryptography to record and verify every transaction—could make the legal oversight needed to oversee contracts and collect intellectual property superfluous. But the technology is still years from becoming a standard. Taking a longer view, it is also merely a stop-gap solution until quantum computing takes hold. Either way, such tech-driven disruption will make the legal industry almost unrecognizable in 20 years or so.
How the Law Will Use Blockchain—and How it Won’t
Much of the raison d’etre of lawyers and government agencies is to maintain and defend property. For instance, if you own your house, paperwork is filed with the government. If someone else claims to own it, that documentation will fend off the challenge. With blockchain, the process would be similar, but the documentation would exist in the form of data stored in an internet ledger. That means that in theory, two parties could engage in a smart contract that existed on the internet. If one party violated the terms, then both could look at the original language.
This utopian vision overlooks human nature and the ambiguity of language—factors that have kept lawyers in business up until now. What if the contract could be read two different ways? What if there’s a mistake written into the contract?
The idea that blockchain will make lawyers irrelevant is misguided. At most, it is likely to be used to automate some activities and could mean that a law firm could get by with less staff. That’s already happening: a Deloitte study predicts that 114,000 low-skill legal jobs will be automated in the next 20 years. If anything, there’s a great opportunity now for law firms to position themselves as blockchain experts over the next few years and help clients to use this new tool.
The Looming Quantum Computing Challenge
That’s why I’m sanguine about blockchain. I’m less so about another emerging technology, quantum computing. As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has memorably explained, quantum computing transcends the binary form of on/off and 1/0 computing we’re used to for qubits, which allow for much more complex computing in a much smaller space. In practice, this means quantum computers will be millions of times more powerful than today’s most powerful computers.
That means that algorithms could be smarter than the smartest lawyers. “Computational law” as it’s known, automates legal reasoning. Law firms of the future might be developers of computational law applications (CLAs) and providers of cloud-based CLAs.
Meanwhile, quantum computing will decipher the encryption that underlies blockchain. That means that any “secure” smart contract in blockchain will no longer be secure.
A Very Different Legal Profession
While no one knows exactly when quantum computing will take hold and how AI will advance, it’s clear that a legal profession that relies exclusively on human reasoning won’t stand up to tech-based disruption.
Looking ahead just a few years, the profession will change because powerful tools will allow lawyers to focus more on the interpersonal and creative aspects of the job than brute-force analysis.
Like other professions, law is going to look different after the next wave of tech innovations. This will cause some short-term pain for lawyers and aspiring lawyers, but the benefits for the average citizen will be clear. Among the benefits will be better representation, lower cost, and greater efficiency. For society, the change will be a net positive.